Green parasols

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Sunday, 23 February 2014 18:30 by David Horton
'You have come down here to see an election - eh? Spirited contest, my dear sir, very much so indeed. We have opened all the public-houses in the place. It has left our opponent nothing but the beer-shops — masterly policy, my dear sir, eh?' The little man smiled complacently, and took a large pinch of snuff.

'And what is the likely result of the contest?' inquired Mr. Pickwick.

'Why, doubtful, my dear sir, rather doubtful as yet,' replied the little man. 'Fizkin's people have got three-and-thirty voters in the lock-up coach-house at the White Hart.'

'In the coach-house!' said Mr. Pickwick, much astonished.

'They keep 'em locked up there till they want 'em,' resumed the little man. 'The effect, you see, is to prevent our getting at them. Even if we could, it would be of no use, for they keep them very drunk on purpose. Smart fellow, Fizkin's agent very smart fellow indeed.

'We are pretty confident, though,' said Mr. Perker, his voice sinking almost to a whisper. 'We had a little tea-party here last night, five-and-forty women, my dear sir and gave every one of 'em a green parasol when she went away. Five and-forty green parasols, at 7/6d each. Got the votes of all their husbands, and half their brothers. You can't walk half a dozen yards up the street, without encountering half a dozen green parasols.'

'Is everything ready?' said Samuel Slumkey to Mr. Perker.

'Nothing has been left undone, my dear sir. There are twenty washed men at the street door for you to shake hands with; and six children in arms that you're to pat on the head, and ask the age of. Be particular about the children, my dear sir. It always has a great effect, that sort of thing.

'And perhaps if you could manage to kiss one of 'em, it would produce a very great impression on the crowd. I think it would make you very popular.'

[from Charles Dickens, Pickwick Papers, the Eatanswill election]

Well, plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, eh? Oh the details of elections may vary a little from 1827, but the same tactics apply — get the voters stupefied, lock them in to voting for you, carry out some mindless stunts for the media. Gain power by whatever it takes. But, whatever you do, don't mention policies.

The way it worked for the conservatives (‘Liberals’ is one of the most misleading political names in history) in Australia in 2013 was very similar.

Before the election they engage endlessly in stunts for tv cameras, in fancy dress they lob into some known-to-be-friendly site, hold something mindlessly for the cameras, and repeat, yet again, one of a small set of focus-group-tested three word slogans.

The slogans relate to one or two policies that can be made to seem appealing to people stupefied by a diet of commercial television and News Ltd papers. Reducing electricity prices by dropping a price on carbon (‘axe the tax’), punishing brown-skinned desperate asylum seekers (‘stop the boats’), creating a Budget surplus (‘cut the waste’).

Just two other things they need to do. Claim that, apart from those few policies, in every other respect they and the (then) government are as one. Promise, implicitly or explicitly, that all the popular programs the government introduced in education, health, social services, environment, foreign affairs, workplace relations, and so on, will be retained. That in fact a change in government will be, with the exception of those popular slogan-based promises, almost un-noticeable. But better of course, because of their other claim — of competence, experience, professionalism, a ‘grown-up government’.

Home and hosed, with a lot of help from their media friends who promote slogans and stunts and grown-upness, and we have a brand new day.

After the election, while they will indeed aim to get rid of the carbon price and screw the refugees, it will suddenly appear that there were dozens, hundreds of policies never mentioned in the election campaign which are of extreme urgency. Beginning immediately, all climate change and renewable energy programs are slashed or marked for slashing; the Gonski school funding plan rejected; disability schemes abandoned; work place relations marked for big change; Medicare co-payments flagged; Australia Post set up for privatising; environmentally damaging projects approved; racial vilification laws removed; aged care damaged; NBN dismantled; ABC attacked and threatened; Indonesia insulted and her borders breached; Same Sex marriage challenged in the High Court; Aboriginal programs combined and cut, and so on. Commissions and Reviews are established to rewrite the national curriculum with a right wing and religious bias, and to slash all government spending, notably social services.

That is, just as in Eatanswill, the election of 2013 (like that of 1996) was marked by a total disconnect between a campaign aimed at winning power, and the subsequent use of that power. John Howard established the principle with his ‘core and non-core promises’, a distinction unmentioned before the election, and Abbott has continued with his proposition that only things he read out from a piece of paper, not things he said in an interview, carried any implication of reality.

The approach the Right has adopted is this: their ideology, in reality, is unpalatable to all except a tiny number of very rich people plus the small audiences of rabid shock jocks — that is, if they told people up front, during an election campaign, what they actually intended to do they could never win.

So they don't. They find a couple of policies that their rich supporters will like and which can be made popular to the masses with the help of that section of rich people who own media outlets. They engage in baby-kissing type stunts. They promise green parasols to those who vote for them. The media run interference by destabilising, attacking, delegitimising, the existing government. At the same time they totally cover-up the real ideology and agenda of the Opposition. With no reason not to vote for them, and with the green parasol tantalisingly in reach, sufficient votes are moved to get the conservative party into power.

At which point, rather like aliens (say the Slitheen of Dr Who) who rip away a human mask to reveal their true nature, the Liberal Party goes to work, as outlined above. Fake enquiries staffed by business mates will be set up to provide an alibi for the slashing and burning of the economy to disadvantage the poor and reward the rich. But generally, these days, with an acquiescent media and journalism for the rich, even the old ‘budget in worse shape than we thought’ lie isn't really needed. They can proceed quite confidently to do many things they never mentioned in the campaign, and the opposite of some things they did, knowing that the media will point out neither surprises nor contradictions. Oh, and it will turn out, so sorry, budget problems you understand, that the green parasols will only go to the rich who already have parasols of other colours.

But, you say, all very well, and a lot of damage can be done in the first term of office of a government. But obviously, after three, four, five years, depending, these vandals, masks long since ripped away, will have to face the voters who will be ready, surely, to vote early and vote often, in a fury, in order to wipe these conservatives from the political map? Er, no, sorry.

For several reasons it is very common for these conservative governments to be voted back in for several terms of office. First, come election time, they will have the advantages of incumbency — control (in Australia) of election timing, of public service, of ‘public information’ advertising, of spending, of media appearances. They can in fact go through the whole kissing babies/green parasols routine more effectively this time, and the media will keep voters stupefied; will fail to talk about the record of the government and its implications, and the public, if not reminded, forgets; will set the shock jocks to work damning the Opposition and praising the government.

Generally speaking all of that is enough to get even the most vicious and destructive government at least a second term, probably more. But these people, and their promoters, don't take chances — far too much money is at stake, far too many glittering prizes for political and business winners. So to make sure it is not uncommon to bring out the big guns. From time immemorial electoral success for an incumbent government can be guaranteed by the Falkland Gambit — rumours of war, border incidents, and, at times, the full monty, actual war, preferably, indeed invariably, against a weaker opponent.

And so Thatcher had her Falklands, Bush had his Iraq, John Howard had his Tampa incident, then Iraq, and so on.

Tony Abbott has already begun, astonishingly early, to irritate Indonesia with border incursions, and ‘Operation Sovereign Borders’, Three Star General on board. Probably no coincidence given that he has gone in much harder and earlier (than, say, John Howard) in his program to turn Australia into a neo-con paradise, starting by changing 2013 to Year 0. The only question remaining is where will he find a weaker opponent for the Falkland Gambit in 2016. Make no mistake, the billionaire backers of Tony Abbott have absolutely no intention of losing him after one term.

Oh, and also get ready in 2016 for more green parasols like Paid Parental Leave. And plenty of baby kissing by a man wearing rather odd costumes and head gear!